Expansion of Housing First services is key to easing homeless crisis

Cork Simon's soup run meets an average of 28 people a night. Picture: David Keane

A radical approach is helping to manage the the homeless situation as far too many people have waited far too long, says Dermot Kavanagh

THE housing and homeless crisis in Cork continues to escalate, but the response to the crisis is improving.

The scale of the deepening crisis in Cork is reflected in the number of people knocking on our door. Last month, our outreach team supported an average of almost 17 people per night sleeping rough in Cork — the highest monthly average in almost two years, and a 58% increase in 12 months.

Our 47-bed emergency shelter is overflowing — so far this year an average of 54 people per night have availed of a Cork Simon emergency bed. Our soup run is meeting an average of 28 people per night.

All of our frontline services are stretched to the very limit. Figures from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government indicate that 273 adults were in emergency accommodation in the South-West during the last week of July — the highest monthly figure in over 18 months.

However, the housing and homeless crisis in Cork hasn’t been on the same spiralling trajectory as in Dublin. And while it’s likely that the crisis in Cork will worsen before we see any real improvement, we are seeing tangible evidence that we’re on the right path to recovery. We’re using all of the available resources to manage the crisis before it gets out of control.

Last year, Cork City Council provided us with funding to further develop our “Housing First” approach to addressing long-term homelessness and rough sleeping. This involves prioritising people who have been long-term homeless for any housing that we’ve been able to find and then providing intensive supports, including clinical supports, housing supports and support towards social reintegration.

Of the 14 people who were supported into housing between December 2015 and June 2016 through our Housing First initiative, they had accounted for 2,962 bed-nights between emergency shelters, rough sleeping or high support housing in the course of 2015 — an average of 212 nights per person or 8.12 beds per night in the homeless services system.

Given that the Cork Simon’s Shelter, for example, has a capacity of 17,155 bed-nights per annum, it’s clear that this initiative is helping to make sure that Cork City continues to have amongst the lowest average number of emergency bed-nights per homeless person in the country.

People aren’t spending as long in homeless services as they do elsewhere, and we know that the longer people remain stuck in homeless services, the more devastating and long-lasting the impact.

Housing First turns the traditional approach to addressing homelessness on its head. It’s proven to be a more efficient and effective way of ending the trauma of homelessness quickly for people, but also helps to make sure there’s an emergency bed for everyone that needs one, keeping rough sleeping to a minimum.

Rather than keeping people needlessly in homeless shelters until they are ready to be housed, which often results in people being more dependent than independent, a Housing First approach works to house people as quickly as possible and then bring whatever supports are necessary for people to address the many complex issues that pushed them into homelessness in the first place.

Once housed, people are in a much better place to start addressing their issues more effectively, integrating more successfully with the wider community, and piecing their lives back together with longer lasting results.

Housing First works. The Government understands this and Cork City Council understands this. We are now sensing a real whole-of-Government commitment, determination and know-how to get to grips with the housing and homeless crisis.

Should Rebuilding Ireland roll-out as planned, we’re expecting to see much more housing coming on stream by early 2018 that will have a real, long-lasting impact. We’re in pole position in Cork to make that housing work for people who have remained stuck in homelessness for far too long, and to end the need for people to sleep rough.

Housing First is the key. Without Cork City Council funding the initiative this past year more people in Cork would be locked into homelessness with no way out and more people would be sleeping on the street. We would be contemplating warehousing even more people and their lives in additional emergency shelters rather than making the right to housing a reality. Working in partnership with Cork City Council and with our sister agencies in Cork has resulted in positive outcomes for people whose lives have been turned upside down by the housing and homeless crisis.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney has committed to ensuring the expansion of Housing First services in Cork and in other cities. He has made a commitment to build 47,000 new housing units over the coming years. And I think that he is listening, as we ask that the authorities do all they can to cut through the everyday red tape that has been killing off all hope and preventing people from accessing the housing they desperately need today.

The Government’s Rebuilding Ireland plan represents a major commitment to addressing this crisis for the longer-term. It now needs to cut the red tape so that as many people as possible in the short-term can see a way out and embrace it. Far too many people have waited far too long. People deserve better.

Dermot Kavanagh is director of the Cork Simon Community

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